Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women
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KeywordsDarwinian Perspective Empress Female White-faced Capuchins Sarah Blaffer Hrdy Female Social Relationships
An edited book that focusses on women as active agents within the evolutionary process.
Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 and co-edited by Maryanne Fisher, Justin Garcia, and Rosemarie Sokol-Chang. It contains 22 chapters, plus an additional foreword by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and an Introduction. The chapters span a range of topics such as health and reproduction, competition and cooperation, parenting, and mating and communication. The goal of the editors was to integrate evolutionary and feminist perspectives, showing that they can work together to provide novel insights into behavior.
Integrating Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives
In the Introduction, the editors of Evolution’s Empress propose that there can be a meaningful reconciliation between the feminist scholarship and that based on an evolutionary framework. They acknowledge that both of these broad areas are grounded in different histories and consequently often arrive at disparate conclusions. Those studying behavior using an evolutionary perspective rely on the scientific method, espousing objectivity, and believe they are building programs of research based on past, objective research. Feminist scholars often rely on qualitative methods, question the existence of objectivity, and propose that research does carry real-world social and political consequences. The editors review a growing dissatisfaction within the field of evolutionary psychology with respect to how women have been viewed as passive, or the neglect of topics that are critical for women, such as mothering, female alliances, and female physiology. Thus, one aim of the editors was to show that women have a leading rather than backseat role in human evolution.
Sex Roles, Aggression, Competition, and Cooperation
Evolution’s Empress is divided into five sections. Section one, “Sex Roles, Aggression, Competition, and Cooperation,” starts with an examination of female social relationships and contains four chapters. The section begins with Maryanne Fisher’s overview of the topic of women’s intrasexual competition for mates. It moves onto a chapter by Laurette Liesen, who analyses female aggression, alliance development, and how women view status. Liza Moscovice examines female alliances within the bonobo, a great ape that is closely aligned genetically with humans. This section ends with a chapter by Patricia Gowaty who presents the development of theoretical (and mathematical) predictions pertaining to sex differentiated behavior and the study of individual differences.
Mothering and Parenting
Section two contains five chapters. It begins with Kathryn Coe and Craig Palmer discussing the role of women in transmitting traditions regarding cooking and storytelling. Nicole Cameron and Justin Garcia then review the extraordinary and distinct biological contributions that maternal effects have on adaptive offspring development. In their chapter on flexible parenting strategies, Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson investigate diverse parenting behavior and show that one commonality is female cooperation in the raising of children. Rosemarie Sokol-Chang suggests that listeners are responsive to vocalizations from attachment partners, proposing that these vocalizations have led women to solicit help in child rearing. Laura Betzig authors the last chapter in this section and reviews historical evidence on conflict between fathers and sons, showing that sons win conflicts when they have strong mothers.
Health and Reproduction
Section three contains four chapters. To start, Chris Reiber demonstrates how limited knowledge exists for women’s reproductive physiology and the important contributing role that an evolutionary feminist perspective may play in furthering this area. In her chapter, Bobbi Low uses a life history/behavioral ecology approach to explore human fertility, as it relates to social, cultural, and ecological factors. One theme in Low’s chapter, the trade-off been present and future reproduction, is the focus of the chapter by Johannes Johow, Eckart Voland, and Kai Willführ. They examine grandmothers, in particular, and contend that grandmothering is based on relevant conditions, including whether they are a grandmother based on their son’s or daughter’s reproduction. This theme of present or future considerations carries into the last chapter in this section by Michelle Escasa-Dorne, Sharon Young, and Peter Gray who explore woman’s life history decisions in terms of childcare and views of romantic relationships, as influenced by life course development.
Mating and Communication
In the first of four chapters in this section, Linda Fedigan and Katharine Jack discuss, as an example species, female white-faced capuchins’ active rather than passive role in male mating strategies and throughout the full reproductive process. David Frederick, Tania Reynolds, and Maryanne Fisher present how women’s choice of mates across diverse circumstances reflects flexibility in mating strategy. One trait, humor, is the focus of a chapter by Christopher Wilbur and Lorne Campbell. They discuss how women’s choice of men with humor has actively shaped men’s evolutionary history. In the last chapter in this section, Elisabeth Oberzaucher reviews sex differences in communication styles as a possible explanation for global inequality.
New Disciplinary Frontiers
The last section contains five chapters, spanning a considerable range of topics that collectively demonstrate how evolutionary and feminist perspectives may be integrated, leading to novel research developments. Tami Meredith presents how previously documented sex differences are better understood when one includes examination of motivations. She concludes that many of the sex differences are not absolute, but instead rely on different motivations, or occur at different frequencies. Nancy Easterlin continues with this theme, suggesting that sex differences do not necessarily imply differences in value. She uses the example of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre to show that evolved differences do not determine social outcomes but instead allow one to explore male control of female’s strategies related to reproductive fitness and personal autonomy within pair-bonds. Julie Seaman reviews the necessity for a merger between feminist legal scholars and evolutionary psychologists, which would lead to insights of the latter group to be incorporated and thereby enable a deeper understanding of the human behavior that the law seeks to shape and regulate. Michele Pridmore-Brown combines queer theory with research on cooperative breeding to explore the “queering” of nature and the biologization of culture. Leslie Heywood, in the final chapter of the book, applies the extended synthesis of evolutionary biology as a way to resolve conflict and facilitate a conversation between evolutionary psychology and feminist theory. She clarifies with several precise examples how the extended synthesis may serve to mediate the central tenets of feminist theory and those within evolutionary psychology.
The aim of the editors of Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women was to collect chapters that represent the range of research on women’s active role in evolution. These chapters show, to varying extents, the ways in which evolutionary perspectives of human behavior and the feminist scholarship may be integrated, yielding novel directions for research. They contend that prior research that overlooks the inclusion of women and their viewpoints leads to the default and often erroneous conclusion that women are like men. They further posit that research on sex differences is of high importance but must consider women in a way that reflects their active role in human evolution. This book represents the contemporary shift from seeing women as passive to active agents within disciplines that rely on an evolutionary framework.